- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

The various battles over education reform that are occurring across our great land are often lumped into two camps: The one in which people want to maintain the status quo and the one with people who rightly argue that one-size-fits-all public schooling fuels, at best, mediocrity. Most people are fairly familiar with the former, but the latter group stands for far more than charter schools and vouchers.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been moving with deliberate speed to improve student outcomes in America’s largest school system, which has 1.1 million students. Not only is he creating smaller schools from large ones, but he is untying the hands of principals and encouraging them and teachers to essentially educate students by every educational means necessary.

Labor unions and school management are natural adversaries because each has its own bottom line (one is dollars and cents, the other dollars and sense). What’s going on in Los Angeles is a classic example of the tug for power. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is yet another on the growing list of mayors who are trying to gain greater control over their school systems. While the majority of school board members oppose the mayor’s position, the L.A. teachers union is trying to get the upper hand by endorsing and supporting board candidates who do not side with the mayor, calling for a strike vote shortly before the elections and threatening to strike shortly afterward.

The union, of course, couches its aversion to reform with a contract dispute: The school system has offered a 6 percent raise for teachers, but the union demands 10 percent.

In Georgia, advocates of school choice are quietly saying hallelujah in the halls of the statehouse following Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s proposal to expand charter school by allowing multiple charters within individual school systems — a plan the Athens Banner Herald’s Editorial Page called “a welcome new direction for a debate that had become almost hopelessly mired in petty politics.”

The Utah legislature is, for the seventh time, making headway on school vouchers, and they are doing it without using racial terms. The opposition nonetheless remains as steadfast as it is consistent around the nation: the teachers union, the PTA and the board of education.

What does the opposition want? Not smarter kids, for sure. Not choice, which is obvious. Not a smaller education gap between white and children of color.

The status quo wants collective bargaining agreements that prohibit superintendents and principals from hiring, firing and promoting as they see fit, and blocks merit pay for deserving teachers. The status quo wants curriculum that must be taught to all students the same way all the time.

If “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” then why do we cave in to the status quo, which locks out of our schoolhouses not only innovation, but creativity, competition and individual thought?

Our public education systems have been stagnant since the 1970s, when riots, mandated school busing and other racially driven protestations turned America’s cities into desperate pockets of haves and havenots.

We embrace the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private housing and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private colleges, allowing recipients of those vouchers to use them as they see fit. But the push for vouchers for elementary and secondary education is seen as a aberration not only of public policy but a thief — money that robs Peter to pay Paul.

The money should follow the student into the classroom of the parent’s choosing. All parents who are American citizens — regardless of race or ethnicity — deserve the right to be in the position to weigh educational options for their children.

Indeed, charter schools, magnet schools and vouchers are barely sufficient. In the nation’s capital, the D.C. Public School System has been losing thousands of students each year since the 1995 charter-school was enacted. Today, one-in-four school-age children attends a charter school, and thousands more are enrolled in private schools courtesy of two voucher programs, including one that is taxpayer funded. Moreover, if the thousands of students enrolled in the city’s magnet and specialty public schools are added to the declining enrollment in traditional schools, the current debate over a mayoral “takeover” would become moot. That’s because the status quo, which is effectively shut out of nontraditional schools, realizes that parents and guardians are exercising even the limited options that are at their disposal.

The fight for school reform and school choice are not mutually exclusive, and the momentum continues to swing toward choice. The upholders of the status quo are desperate, threatening to unlock the doors to the schoolhouse so they can walk out on our children (and I can hear you saying that they walked out a long time ago).

The fight for reform and choice isn’t about teachers or unions, or payrolls or mayors. It really and truly isn’t even about governance. The fight is about children, stupid.

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